This text is posted with Robert Morris' permission. It was originally published in the Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture catalog that accompanied the 1979 King County Arts Commission symposium.
It has always seemed to me that when an artist is asked to speak about his work, that one of two assumptions is being made: one, that because he has made something, he has anything to say about it, or two, if he does, he would want to. Questionable assumptions, in my opinion. But in my case, I was not asked, I was told. It was part of my contract and I couldn’t get it changed. In any case one should not forget Claes Oldenberg’s remark that anyone who listens to an artist talk should have his eyes examined.
Now the work I came out here to do is not even started, so it seems premature for me to discuss it or attempt a dialogue with you who’ve not yet experienced it. Some 20 minutes of restful silence might be the most positive contribution I could make here, but it would, I’m afraid, be misinterpreted. So treading the edge of silence, I will speak in the most general terms.
I would like to address the question: what is public art? But the very question suggests further questions rather than answers. For example, if there is such a thing as public art, what then is private art? I think we would agree that whatever else it might or might not be, the term public art has come to designate works not found in galleries or museums (which are public spaces), but frequently in association with public buildings, and funded with public monies.
For about a decade now, there have been works produced which are found neither in galleries nor museums, nor in association with architecture. This is the type of public art I want to address here. Such work is invariably manifested outside and is generally of a large scale. Other than those two characteristics, it has been fairly varied. Some has focused on the earth itself, some veers toward architecture, some involves both construction and rearranging of the landscape. Such work has been termed earthworks and site works. Much of it has been impermanent- in some cases, set up only for the sake of documentation. Such work exists then as a photograph and reverts back to being housed in a gallery, or in the media. It would not be accurate to designate privately funded early works of Smithson or Heizer or DeMaria in remote parts of the desert as public art. The only public access to such works is photographic.
However, since the early 70’s, a number of large scale works, both permanent and impermanent, situated outside, have been accessible to the public, and to a greater or lesser extent, have been made possible by public funds. So to some extent, large outside projects, earthworks or otherwise, have moved from the private domain (that is, private in the sense of private funding and physical remoteness) to that of the public.
Of course, it is a question as to whether we have in such works, leaving aside their financing and use of alternative spaces, anything in significantly structural ways different from works found in art galleries.
In my opinion, there is a certain amount of earthwork and site work that has been done, or is being done, that brings new structural assumptions to art making.
Of course, any attempt to class these works as more in the public domain, more accessible, more directed to a public use, is in one way rather comical in the face of the literal busloads of people prowling the museums and galleries of New York City, and that neo-Paxtonian disco-delirious culture palace of Beaubourg in Paris. The public is breaking the doors down to get at it in these two cities. Perhaps here, the U.S. government has observed this fact, and their current populist, middle-brow policies of bringing the mediocre to the many is perceived by them as an emergency measure designed to diffuse concentrated culture. Perhaps they fear cultural riots.
In any case, whether it be Soho or Seattle, art has come to be perceived as fun, as accessible, as entertainment rated G. Many have sighed with relief and taken the popularity of the arts as convincing evidence that there is no longer an hermetic and recalcitrant avant garde. I’ll return to this notion in connection with modernism and its demise.
In attempting to assess the notion of public art, it might be useful to examine the history of the genre. If we turn to examine 19th Century public art, we are addressing the monument. Clearly, the antecedents to the work we are discussing is sculpture and not architecture or even mural painting. I think that it is important to bear in mind that all of the people who’ve made advanced work in the mode of earthworks and site works or even certain quasi-architectural ones have been sculptors. And it is only out of historical pressures, and formal exhaustions of sculpture, that the present large-scale, outside works could have come. The 19th Century abounds in forgotten neo-classical monuments to larger-than-life events and people. The crisis and gradual retreat from the possibility of sculpture as monument come with Rodin. His figurative group, The Burghers of Calais, was barely accepted after great difficulty. The later Balzac was never installed in the intended site, and the Gate of Hell was never finished. The two major works of Rodin, the Balzac and the Gate, both conceived as monuments, were failures in those terms. As Rosalind Krause has pointed out, it is at this point in the crisis and failure of the outside monument that sculpture comes indoors to thrive in the homeless, non-sited modernism. Historicizing at the generally-accepted reckless pace, one could say that from the generalizing volume of the Balzac, Brancusi fragmented and volumized further to put sculpture firmly on the road to the independent object, finding its apotheosis in the minimalism of the early 1960’s, from which point it turned toward the door and finally made it outside again. This is one narrative which features not only Rodin and Brancusi, but Judd, Lewitt, Andre, Smithson, Serra, Oppenheim, Morris, and others.
One could trace another, chronicling the movement as independent object and see an unbroken chain of burdensome marble, bronze and steel adorning architectural plazas, courtyards, sculpture gardens and fountains, and featuring Carpeau, Pevsner, Smith, Caro, De Suvaro, Oldenberg, and others. No doubt, this goes to show that one person’s historicizing is another’s fiction.
In any case, the work we are discussing not only does not adorn architectural spaces, but in most cases has a dialectical relationship to the site it occupies. Another characteristic of the work under discussion and one inherited from minimalism is the coexistence of its space with that of the viewer. The emergence of this characteristic in the 60’s also signaled, more than any other formal one, the termination of indoor sculptural efforts as modernist for it purified the work as a sculptural object and drove it toward architecture, toward temporal rather than instantaneous perception. The pressures for increased scale in the lateral dimension, by extending and articulating a space, which included the viewer, pushed such work out of the confines of the gallery.
Hence, it is no surprise that the first large-scale exterior earthworks and site constructions of Smithson, Heizer, Serra, Morris and others exhibit strong gestalt forms, extended into space, as a heritage from minimalist form. But I think it is fair to say that by the mid-60’s, there was more than just formal pressures forcing sculpture to move outside. Part of the impetus was the raging commodity use to which gallery art was being put. Such were the times, when a collector like Robert Scull could say to another collector, “I just bought ten works by X.” To which the other collector replied, “I never heard of him; he’s a nobody.” To which Scull replied, “After I bought ten of them, he’s somebody.”
The fact that the first large-scale works were privately funded, some by Mr. Scull himself, indentured the artist, perhaps more than any gallery sale. There was a feeling however misguided, that the artist was operating outside the crassness of the marketplace, that he had left off producing saleable objects, that he was somehow specially privileged by this patron relationship, that he was acting more in the real world.
I think these attitudes were illusions, but at the time they were prevalent.
In passing, it is worth making a distinction here between modernism and avant garde. During the early 60’s the two coincided momentarily, but the formal lines of painting and sculpture were maintained. In the late 60’s this was not the case. Formats were dismantled and forms proliferated. In my opinion, this proliferation has not engendered a pluralistic kind of liberal tolerance which has diffused critical art issues. I believe there are still avant garde art issues of a structural and critical nature. Such issues do not happen to be identified exclusively with particular, ongoing forms, but hey are avant garde in the sense of being at the leading edge of critical thought and art moves- moves which, needless to say, are not self- critical in the old-fashioned modernist sense. Some present-day earthworks and site work manifest such moods.
Some of the ostensible formal elements involved- space, scale and time- are not simply expanded, made larger in site works of extended size. Such elements become quite different to deal with in an exterior context. Perception of large spaces and distances is of a different order form the relatively undemanding instantaneous order for objects in closed interior spaces. Priorities can shift within the handling of these formal elements. What may have been latent and unemphasized in interior work may come to the fore in an outside situation in quite different ways. Take the element of time, for example. It is not much emphasized in previous object sculpture. In fact, it was generally assumed not to be a formal parameter at all, as objects are pretty much apprehended all at once. But, as I indicated, as a space expanded in certain minimalist work, time began to emerge as a necessary condition under which the work is perceived. Complex and extended works which assumed the viewer’s presence from within, so to speak, locked time into space itself. Outside works expand and articulate this much further, and because site works are inseparable from their places, an element like time or space is not bound entirely as a formal element within the object properties of the work. Such elements must be acknowledged as existential properties of the complex of work and site together, and can’t be separated from such features as changes of topography, of light, of temperature, of the seasons. Those works which respond as well to historical, economic, social or political features of a place are then reaching beyond even these transmuted formal properties in shaping a work.
An awareness of the myriad existential functions for the particular place, but his desert or town, hillside or swamp, gravel pit or vacant lot, demands a range of responsiveness and opportunities for change not implied for the most part in the gallery or museum context.
When the better work is examined, it seems evident that the encounter with the existential conditions of place has been formative. Reactions to particular features of that place, be they temporal, geological, topographical, social, spatial, historical, economic, etc., have moved the arts significantly off a purely formal axis. Making the work more locally relevant has not made it more parochial, in my opinion, but more inextricably a part of the time and place in which it exists.
Sophisticated formal concerns are not so much weakened here as they have come to be assumed as a necessary requirement, but perhaps now not the central motivating concern.
I would argue that the formative uses of these transmuted formal and transformal, locally relevant conditions of place have added a significant structural new element to the art making. Such usages derive from the context of place, and form the art with what can once again be called a theme. It will be remembered that both Rodin’s and Brancusi’s works are informed by what can be described as themes. Fairly general and romantic in Rodin’s case, jejune and mystical, perhaps, in Brancusi’s
If the thematic in the new work represents in some sense a return or reconnection to 19th Century art, this is, in itself, a new art issue. But the redefinitions involved in the formal and thematic, and as we shall see, the uses to which the art is put, also raise new issues.
The incorporation of a new motive and internal structure, that is, the thematic as a contextual response, constitutes more than a variation. Here we are not talking about mere empirical differences between past indoor sculptures and siteworks, but about a shift in the basis for proceeding to make the work. Such different assumptions, motives, responses and results also do more than raise aesthetic issues as to what art can be. They raise moral questions, as well, as to where art should be, and who should own it, and how it should be used.
In terms of broad thematic differences between various siteworks which now exist, one general grouping can be made- of those who have chosen to work in inaccessible parts of the great Southwest to pursue various themes of Emersonian transcendentalism truly reminiscent of 19th Century attitudes, a kind of re-living of the pioneer spirit, of subduing the West in artistic terms. There can perhaps be found the last rugged individualist, toiling with a bulldozer rather than Conestoga wagons to construct quasi-religious sites for mediation.
Those working closer to urban sites and in less overwhelmingly romantic landscapes have produced work more often informed by social, economic, political, and historical awarenesses, as well as by concretely physical ones relevant to the site.
My intention here is not to give a critique, either in formal or thematic terms, of existing site works but, as I said at the beginning, to tread near that treacherous, crumbling edge of the general, where broad differences come into view. But examples abound of the distinctions I am making. Those less public works done in the desert are fairly well-known. Less-known perhaps are works of such artists as Tractis, Miss, Aycock, Singer Asconti, Fleishner, Irwin, Holt, and others, all of whom have worked frequently in non-spectacular and sometimes dense urban sites with extremely varied formal and thematic approaches. Such work, in my opinion, presents a sharper critical edge than that which is more pastoral and remote. It is also more public in the literal, aesthetic, and social senses.
It should be apparent that in using the term “thematic” in relation to the new work I am using the term in 1) a very general way, and 2) a very different sense from how it is relevant to 19th Century work. The thematic in the work I have mentioned is not commemorative of great events or people; neither is it narrative in the illustrative sense. Rather, it is commemorative of one or another of the various aspects of the site itself. I am using the term to designate this referential aspect, the many things about the work which do not exhaust themselves in purely formal terms.
In spite of sharp thematic and formal differences between the types of work, there is, not surprisingly, little sense of an internal dialogue between various works. Unlike the modernist enterprise of redefinition of sculpture that was going on in the 60’s, there is no comparable discourse cast in terms of formal moves from one outside work to another. While such work has inherited many formal and perceptual assumptions worked out by minimalist sculpture, it seems to be work of quite a different order, primarily because, as I have argued, it is structured by thematic responses to its context of site. Formal innovations have not been generally the focus of this work. If some of the first earthworks now seem a little romantically overblown, no doubt their spectacle aspect has had something to do with their popular appeal.
It might be worthwhile to discuss the notion of public access, how it is achieved, and what it might mean. It seems every effort is being made to amplify these Seattle projects in the media. The cynical might say that such an effort masks an anxiety to justify the money spent on the projects. For as we have witnessed, intense media coverage, even if it is controversial, tends to be a form of legitimization in this country. The popular media is not always in a position to evenly assess events so much as it is to promote them to the realm of the super-real, the mythical, and ultimately, if there is enough repetition, the historical.
But I think other assumptions lie beyond the media push surrounding these projects- namely, the assumption that there is something especially relevant to and open for the public in these projects, that they defend an aggressive, non-elitist, an even anti-museum stance, while at the same time counting as advanced art. Again, a cynic might reply that it is the spectacle aspect of much outside site and earthworks which is responsible for their popular appeal. Now, I don’t have anything against spectacle. In the 60’s I was one of the early ones to perform nude in a work called Waterman Switch. The effort elicited sneers from some of my colleagues and a certain amount of media attention. But the attention was addressed to the spectacle nature of the work and offered no informed critical response. It has been the fate of much site work to be addressed by the media for its sensational aspect: art’s answer to Disneyland. Come on out and risk your life crawling through tunnels and teetering on ladders! Or better still, if you’re man enough, I should say person enough, make a risky pilgrimage to the inaccessible desert wilderness where, if one can avoid the sidewinders and the cryptic remarks of the taciturn artist, one can return sunburned, but definitely enriched, or at least thrilled, and with a stack of Kodachrome slides.
John Ford, eat your heart out!
Still, site works will never approach certain forms of more popular art in eliciting the highest forms of sensationalist response. Pauline Kael described the sounds of Maria Schneider’s panties being ripped off by Marlon Brando in The Last Tango in Paris as comparable to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. Now, it is a sad but true fact that no lowly plastic artist could ever attain such heights or depths, as the case may be. I don’t want to imply that the spectacle-oriented responses are illegimate. Art doesn’t legislate responses, but, in my opinion, art that is interesting is interesting by virtue of its internal structures, notwithstanding whatever external spectacle it might present. Rather, it is art in which there is an importance in how things are put together by the human mind, those inventive, perceptual, ordering achievements which make art fascinating and deep from the inside, as it were.
What is frequently and popularly termed great art, usually in relation to long dead artist, often involves nostalgia, often a nostalgia even for long-lost spectacle- hero worship or some comforting sense of the familiar. Why else would major museums want lavish shows on third-rate, but solid gold King Tut artifacts, or why else would the Museum of Modern Art follow the Cezanne show, an unnecessary non-modern but by now thoroughly familiar set of images, with a museum-wide exhibition of Picassos, again as familiar as calendar images. Such popular judgments are made from the outside, or else in the interest of attendance.
But the assessment of internal structure demands a certain informed response, at least that level that is available in interest in art. It’s available in much site work, which is not to say it denies any spectacle or popular appeal the work might have.
I only want to indicate here in general terms the ways in which recent site and earthworks are different from previous sculpture, by virtue of their internal structures, and to raise some discussion as to how such work qualifies for the designation public art.
In doing so, I want to draw attention to its continuity with the past tradition of modernism in 19th Century work, as well as its break from those traditions. If it represents a new direction, it can equally be seen as a return via certain redefinitions to a justification for monumental work which had been cast aside at the birth of modernism and now appears once again on the dual grave sites of modernism and abandoned industrial landscapes.
In contrast, nothing now seems deader than large-scale outside object sculpture, that other tradition I mentioned. Attempting to live in symbiosis with architecture, insofar as it retained its autonomy as an object, it forfeits any structural or thematic relation to its context.
I’d go even farther in the cases of those artists still producing the sort of work which achieved identity and recognition in the 60’s as modernist and include modes of work derived from Cubist antecedents as well as the minimal. The continued production of such works placed outside, or even inside for that matter, seems more than suspect at this time. It is true that artists must live for the most part by the production of saleable objects. But that does not justify art that reduces its ambition to the tiny focus of mere variation of past modes for the sake of sales. It reduces art to a craft function, and blackens its image as an ambitious undertaking concerned, as any ambitious discipline, to go forward by risking attempts at internal structural discovery. In short, much like manufacturing, masquerading as art today, large-scale object sculpture has abdicated the objective of art, which is the ambition for new structure in the most extended sense. Such an aim lies on the other side of either superficial newness for its own sake, or the permutation of desiccated modernist ideas.
Generalizing further, I would say that the weakened position of much art of the 70’s is endemic, and can be linked to a lack of significant intellectual dissent in the country at the present time. But this is the subject for another discussion.
Of course, so long as mindless city planning prevails, and bureaucratic architecture yearns for décor, there will be dumb sculpture burdening plazas, and greenswards and site works will have to find dumps, swamps, gravel pits, and other industrially ravaged pieces of the landscape, if they are to be located near urban centers. Personally, I prefer such wasted areas to those numbing plazas and absurd sculpture gardens. In regard to the present situation here in Seattle, we have an alternative to art as urban décor in the form of art as land reclamation.
In closing, I want to take this opportunity to thank the King County Arts Commission for sponsoring these present projects. To my knowledge, this is the first time that art has functioned as land reclamation. The idea of cleaning up the landscape that has been wasted by industry is not, of course, new. I have previously had discussions with coal mining interests in West Virginia, and I know Robert Smithson was negotiating some time ago with coal miners in the West.
But a few things have not been discussed, to my knowledge, about art as land reclamation.
The first thing seems rather bizarre to me. That is , that the selling point was, is that the art was going to cost less than restoring the site to its “natural condition.” What are the implications of that kind of thinking… that art should be cheaper than nature? OR that site works can be supported and seen as relevant by a community only if they fulfill a kind of sanitation service?
The most significant implication of art as land reclamation is that art can and should be used to wipe away technological guilt. Do those sites scarred by mining or poisoned by chemicals now seem less like the entropic liabilities of ravenous and short-sighted industry and more like long-awaited aesthetic possibilities? Will it be a little easier in the future to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy source if an artist can be found (cheap, mind you) to transform the devastation into an inspiring and modern work of art? Or anyway, into a fun place to be? Well, at the very least, into a tidy, mugger-free park.
It would seem that artists participating in art as land reclamation will be forced to make moral as well as aesthetic choices. There may be more choices available than either a cooperative or critical stance for those who participate. But it would perhaps be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place.